The Phillies begin spring training in Clearwater, Florida, on Feb. 14. Leading up to the first workout, we will take a daily look at the important issues and storylines of camp.
The start of spring training is always a time for optimism. The sun shines, the palms sway and everyone pats each other on the back and says, “Good to see ya, how was your winter?” There are no slumps, the ERAs are pristine and everyone is in first place.
And as for those nagging injuries of the previous season … well, they’re all healed.
That’s the hope, at least.
For the Phillies, there is no bigger issue coming into this camp than the health of building-block pitcher Aaron Nola, who missed the final two months of the 2016 season with a strained right elbow.
The team and the pitcher took a conservative path to recovery — rest, a PRP injection and a rehab program that stretched well into the fall months. By the conclusion of the rehab program, Nola was back up on a bullpen mound throwing pain-free. He started his wintertime throwing program around Christmas and recently proclaimed himself to be completely healthy.
That’s good news. Really good news.
The truest gauge of the health of Nola’s elbow won’t come until camp begins, until he goes through the springtime progressions that all big-league starters must scale before being ready to throw 100 or more pitches in April. There will be the bullpen sessions, the throwing of live (full-speed) batting practice, the bump in intensity that comes with the start of the Grapefruit League season and finally the tests of pitching into the middle innings, raising a pitch count to close to 100 and having to bear down against a competing hitter in a game situation.
Oh, hello, Mr. Bautista.
Only when Nola clears these hurdles will we have a clearer picture of the health of his elbow.
Until then, we have the appraisals of the pitcher and those close to him, and their pre-spring insights do provide reason for optimism.
“I feel like the injury is past me,” the pitcher said recently. “I feel back to normal. My arm is all good. One-hundred percent.”
“Everything I’ve heard from last fall all the way through the present has been positive,” general manager Matt Klentak said.
While optimistic, manager Pete Mackanin remains pragmatic about Nola’s condition.
“He says he feels great,” Mackanin said. “But there’s always that concern. He had the issue, he rested it, but there was no surgery, nothing like that, so you always wonder. So therefore, I’m anxious to see how he looks in the spring, and as we get deeper into the spring hopefully he’ll have no ill effects and he’ll stay strong.
“Then you get into the season — you know, you’re always worried, especially about your starters who you rely on every fifth day. I’m going to be nervous the whole year that one day (head athletic trainer) Scott Sheridan doesn’t come into my office and say, ‘Pete, his elbow is bothering him.’ You don’t want that to happen. So, yeah, you’re always thinking about it and worrying about it.”
Of course, managers and front office men have this concern about all pitchers. The elite pitching arm is one of the most valuable commodities in pro sports — and also one of the most fragile.
Nola, 23, is a huge part of the Phillies’ present and future. The club selected him with the seventh overall pick in the 2014 draft after he’d fashioned a stellar career at LSU. He ascended to the big leagues a year later and recorded a 3.12 ERA in his first 25 big-league starts before hitting a rough patch last summer.
Nola’s ERA over his last eight starts of 2016 was an unsightly 9.82. The big reason for his struggle was a loss of his pinpoint fastball command, a lifelong strength, possibly because of a slip in his mechanics. Nola’s confidence took a hit but, as a competitor, he plowed on through what many saw as a normal growing pain for a young big-league starter. Finally, on July 28 in Atlanta, he over-did. He felt something in his elbow, was diagnosed with a sprained ulnar collateral ligament and a strained flexor tendon and was shut down for the remainder of the season.
Time will tell if Nola’s health issue is indeed behind him.
If he passes all his tests in spring training, he will be in the team’s five-man rotation with Jerad Eickhoff, Jeremy Hellickson, Vince Velasquez and Clay Buchholz.
The Phillies have coverage if Nola does not pass the tests that will come these next two months in Florida. The team has built significant young starting pitching depth at the upper level of the minor leagues, led by Zach Eflin, Jake Thompson, Adam Morgan and Alec Asher, a quartet that combined to make 47 starts in the majors last season.
But it goes without saying that the Phillies prefer to have Nola in the rotation come the first week of April. It will mean that he passed all the tests that spring training brought his way and that will be really good news for a pitcher that is important to this club now and in the future.
Next: Day 3 – A look at some of the young prospects in camp